Monday, March 28, 2016

The Continental Marsh

By Beth Sullivan
Those of us who live in Southeast Connecticut are very lucky to have one of the largest coastal preserves in the state. Barn Island Wildlife Management Area is more than 1000 acres of saltmarsh and coastal forest, owned and managed by the State and the DEEP. There is a little slice of this heaven that is owned by Avalonia Land Conservancy with a special history and is a gem in its own right. This is the Continental Marsh Preserve.
Continental Marsh is a site of historical and ecological significance.

A bit of local history

During the American Revolutionary War, the Davis Farm , which is located east of Barn Island WMA, provided the Continental armies with hay harvested from the salt marsh and thus gave the piece its name. Salt hay was valuable for grazing cattle and sheep. The marsh provided income as the hay was also sold for livestock bedding and food. That particular grass is Spartina patens and is a fine sturdy grass that grows on a higher drier part of the marsh. Over the decades, due to many causes such as changes in tides, sea level rise and even peat compression due to more frequent flooding, the marsh has changed. It's become more compacted, lower and wetter, and the high marsh grass retreated to be replaced by Spartina alterniflora and other grasses that tolerate the wetter conditions. This new grass was not nearly as desirable for salt hay.
The original nest lasted several years before it collapsed.

The area is secluded, almost like a “valley” of marsh, between the slightly higher coastal forests with a creek of tidal flow flushing it daily and bringing life deep into the marsh. It is this area that was donated to Avalonia land Conservancy in 1978 . Reading the deed to this property is like beginning a historical mystery using shifting shorelines, tidal creeks and ancient stone bridges as marker points to describe the boundary.
Tree nests are not always sturdy and are vulnerable to  predators.

About 8 years ago, volunteers erected a unique set-up to provide a nesting site for osprey. It was like a tripod with a basket on top to provide the elevated platform the birds require. For many years the nest was very successful. Two years ago, in a storm, it collapsed. In order to replace a nest, there is a very specific process to obtain permits, and it takes a while. The osprey did not want to wait. They took to the trees! Last year they created a big nest in the top of a seemingly fragile tree. It did not hold up well, and we believe it was abandoned.
The trek out, carrying the new nest was challenging. 

A new platform

We got our permits in order and were determined to offer a more sturdy option for this nesting season. Osprey are always expected in the middle of March, as early as the 14th, but usually later depending on the weather and winds. This gave us a deadline, and last week a team of volunteers got out onto the marsh ahead of the birds’ return.
From one end to the other -

Negotiating the marsh is always a challenge, especially when carrying heavy poles and platforms. Wet holes are hidden under the long grass. But we got all parts and tools out and didn’t lose anyone in a ditch! It was assembled and erected on the marsh very efficiently and quickly. In about an hour the new platform was up and all the wood debris from the old one carried out.
- the view is pure salt marsh.

A last look out onto the marsh revealed gray skies and still brown grass. Some Mallards and Black ducks flew up from the water. A few gulls soared overhead. We wished for the osprey and hope they will enjoy our efforts and nest successfully this year. We will let you know.
The new platform is sturdy and ready for a house hunting pair of Osprey.

The Continental Marsh can be reached by walking in from the East Side of Barn Island, at the end of Stewart Rd/Bruckner Pentway. We ask that all viewing of the osprey nests is done from afar!

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

Monday, March 21, 2016

There's something about yellow

By Beth Sullivan

(This week's post was originally posted on April 18, 2013. We thought you might like to see it if you weren't follow this blog back then.)

Did you ever notice that it never quite feels like spring, until our world is dotted with yellow? In our yards we eagerly await the early daffodils and forsythia sprays. We don’t look forward to dandelions quite as much, but you have to admit their bright sunny yellow is a sign that spring really has arrived.
Bird lovers also await an early yellow: The American Goldfinch. This is not a true first of spring like returning migrants. Goldfinches remain here all winter, coming to our bird feeders. Through the fall and winter they are a soft, almost drab, olive color with dark wings and light white or cream wing bars. However, right about now, all of a sudden we spy a flash of bright yellow! The males have attained their breeding plumage, and are ready to show it off!

Photo by Rick Newton

Many birds change plumage when breeding season approaches. Warblers are notably confusing to birders as they change back and forth over the year. However, most of our local resident birds keep the same plumage year round. Think of Chickadees, Titmice, Nuthatches, Downy Woodpeckers, House Finches, and Blue Jays that visit our feeders through all seasons. Even Cardinals; while males and females are significantly different from one another, each remains pretty much the same throughout the year. It is our Goldfinch that changes the most dramatically.
In the fall, the males begin to get mottled looking, their feathers seem to look a little raggedy as the duller color replaces their bright yellow. During the winter the males and females look pretty much the same except for some subtle differences. Many people believe their “Wild Canaries”, their Goldfinches, have left with the other migrants. Not so.
It is curious that we don’t really notice the males changing back to yellow. Do they hide? Are they embarrassed by their disheveled appearance? No, not at all, though you have to keep your eyes open. It is just that when the day comes, and they appear at our feeder in that glorious bright spring yellow, accented by black wings and black cap; it is a stunning sight. It is hard to believe they have been here all along. A sight for sore eyes that have been counting signs of spring!
Photo by Rick Newton

Goldfinches are birds that use many habitats. They can be most frequently found in field and shrub habitats, as well as around our back yards. They are a species very dependent on seeds so in all seasons you can look for them in weedy grassy fields and hedgerows. Check the fields at the Knox Preserve, among other Avalonia properties, for the bright yellow finch perched atop a grass seed head or flower stem. They are one of the latest of the bird species to nest in the summer. They look for the downy seeds of milkweed, thistle and others to line their nests, and their young hatch when seeds are most abundant in later August.

Learn more about the American Goldfinch at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 

Monday, March 14, 2016

Babcock Ridge revisited

By Beth Sullivan
The day was too beautiful. It begged for a special hike. Last fall we walked Babcock Ridge and got a bit turned around at a couple of places. It was a great hike but the trail was not yet ready. But the Avalonia volunteers in North Stonington have been busy all winter and it shows!
We needed to get out with GPS equipment on the trails so maps can be created and posted on the trails and on-line for visitors. The entry is a small pull-off lot at 113 Babcock Road. There is room for several cars. Once signage goes up after a formal dedication later this spring, it will be far easier to spot from the road.
The trail is blazed in blue and starts out as an easy wide trail, the “stem of the lollipop” before the loop portion begins. Through force of habit, I always go counter-clock wise, to the east first. If it makes a difference to anyone, this way has a steep upslope segment with an “easier way” alternative offered. No problem at all. The clockwise route would provide a longer but somewhat more gradual slope upward.

Mourning Cloaks announce spring

We got the GPS, smart phone and camera all ready to go, and set off. Immediately we were greeted by several Mourning Cloak butterflies. These are the first to emerge in the spring after a winter hibernation. They tend to like to overwinter in crevices and cracks in rocky areas and hollow trees. There are plenty of both at Babcock and the warm sun brought them out. We had at least a dozen on the whole hike. A perfect first sign of spring!
One of several Mourning Cloaks out and about on a warm day.

A short way farther along the trail, we could begin to hear the “quacking” sound of Wood frogs in the vernal pool. As we got closer the chorus got stronger and was joined by a few Spring Peepers. I was apparently not quiet enough in my approach, because they stopped their calling. However the water was in constant motion as I could see individuals swimming in the shallow, warmed water. They will be laying eggs soon,as will the Spotted salamanders, and the vernal pool will host larval Marbled salamanders and Fairy Shrimp, as well. If you approach, be patient, sit still, the chorus might resume for you.
The early Spring vernal pool was noisy on this sunny day.

Wetlands to see

The trail drops down to a wetland area. Here you make a choice. The blue trail goes pretty straight up the ridge. A yellow-blazed “easier way” crosses the beautiful green, mossy wetland and makes a switchback trail up to the top in a more gradual way. I would take the wetland option, just because it is pretty.
Wetlands spread out rocky and mossy.

When the trails reconnect, it continues up and up to the top of the rocky ridge. Along the way you can see large ledges, caves, and rock faces covered with lichen and fungi. You can imagine what creatures would use these caves for denning opportunities.
Wonder what might live in this cave?

At the top, elevation about 290 feet, the winter views are far and wide. A few little side trips off the trail to peek over the edge are well worth it! We encountered a garter snake sunning against a warm rock. It was not happy to be disturbed! The trail crosses through the stone wall and actually joins the southern portion of the Erisman Woodlands loop. Here you can make some more choices. You can continue on the Babcock trail and head south back down to where you began, or you can follow the Erisman loop trail, extending the hike, in essence making a figure eight. It was well signed and easy to follow. Enjoy the top. If you are lucky you might glimpse the elusive Pileated Woodpecker that resides up there.
This Garter snake was not happy we disturbed its sunbath.

The trail offers choices and is easy to follow.

This day we took the Babcock loop back down. We noted old barbed wire, signs of historic boundaries, some of which was so deeply embedded into the trees it was completely encased. The wetland is more spread out, rockier here, and the stream is fuller and babbles more.
The elusive Pileated Woodpecker. Photograph by Niall  Doherty.

Ancient barbed wire, embedded deeply, speaks of the land's history.

Looking at the landscape in winter, it is easy to imagine the path of the glaciers, leaving rocks and ledges and all sorts of rocky till, making valleys for the water to collect and flow.
The trail is a bit more than a mile and a half, easy to follow, with lots to look at. I cannot wait for the season to progress, the greenery to change the views. Maybe next time I will go clockwise!
There is a special dedication of this Preserve, tentatively scheduled for May 14th. Please check the website for details.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise indicated.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Early Birds

by Beth Sullivan
As we sit and watch, and maybe complain, about some continued snow flurries, we do have to remember it is still considered winter for another few weeks. It doesn’t mean we shouldn't dream and anticipate.
Dunlin are long distance migrants. Photograph by Rick Newton.

Some of our early spring arrivals are already on their way to us. The migration for many birds has begun. Some of the longest distance migrants, shorebirds of many species, are leaving wintering grounds in the far south coasts of South America and gradually making their way to their far northern breeding grounds near the Arctic circle. In some cases their migration corresponds with the breeding seasons of Horseshoe crabs which nest and lay eggs in huge numbers on our sandy beaches, providing nourishment for long distance migrants. The Horseshoe crabs will begin to arrive here in later April and into May, peaking in June at the times of the high tides with the full moon.
Horseshoe Crabs arrive here to lay their eggs, and those eggs will nourish migrating shorebirds.

Shorebird migration follows sources of food, including Horseshoe crabs.

Purple Martins are eagerly awaited by many of us who are landlords. Our houses and gourds are cleaned and ready. By early April we will begin watching for scouts. While we wait we can watch the migration progress on line through the Purple Martin Conservation Association website. You will certainly hear when ours arrive.
We have cleaned the houses and will await the Martins at the end of April.

Expect Osprey mid-March

The Osprey are the ones I await most eagerly. Their arrival is one I mark every year. Often it falls around St Patrick’s Day, but it may be a hair earlier or later depending on weather and prevailing winds. While I wait, I watch a live streaming Osprey cam here. This is one of several and is located in the deep south where some osprey overwinter and therefore start nesting a lot earlier. But it is a sweet peek into the life in the nest!
Osprey are still father south, enjoying warm weather and easy fishing.

Believe it or not, two of our biggest local resident birds are already on their nests and sitting on eggs.
In the woodlands, the Great Horned Owl has been active all winter, hunting and hooting and courting through the snowiest times. Right now they are on eggs. Even during the bitterest cold, the female will not abandon her duties. Her mate provides her with food. When the eggs hatch, he continues to provide until the time she can leave the nestlings safely. By then the weather is warmer, and those babies are hungry, requiring the hunting skill of both parents. For a glimpse into the Great Horned Owls’ nest, check this link. It is also southern, there may be some more local, but this is a great view.
A great Horned Owl enjoys a sunny nap.

Bald Eagles

And then there are the Bald Eagles. They are not common, but becoming a bit more abundant in our state and along the coastline. During this winter we were treated to numerous sightings on the open waters along the shore and at the river mouths. We do have nesting Eagles locally, but their nest site locations are guarded to avoid disturbance. There was a nest established in a very public area in Milford this year. The birds tolerated visitors and binoculars and cameras. It was determined they had at least one egg. Then the big wind and rain storm a week ago broke the tree limb that supported the nest and the entire thing crashed, and the egg broke. The Eagles continue to remain in the area but may not attempt to rebuild this year. Fingers crossed for next year. However this Eagle cam in Florida has kept me preoccupied and distracted for weeks now. 
Bald Eagles were visible around our coves and rivers this winter.

Take a peek at these. I warn you it can be addicting. But take a look beyond the nests too: you can see blue water and green leaves. You can practically feel the warmth that is coming with the birds.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise indicated.